A baby born in a tree!
A baby beamed out of her mother’s body!
A baby born to Arnold Schwarzenegger!
I’ve looked at hundreds of TV and movie birth scenes to discover exactly how the mass media distorts birth. I found that Hollywood routinely exaggerates fear, danger, and speed, like in this common motif: the minute a pregnant woman’s water breaks, there’s a mad rush to the hospital. Cars screech around corners and run over pedestrians, or, worse, they get stuck in traffic.
None of this would matter if it didn’t accumulate in our subconscious minds, affecting the way we feel about labor when it’s our turn to have babies. But a lifetime of exposure does indeed seep into us. That can affect our minds and even our bodies during pregnancy and birth.
Hollywood makes women look silly, nutty, desperate. Moms look helpless and in need of immediate rescue. The scariest birth scene ever was an episode of “E.R.” directed by Mimi Leder. A loveable woman who wanted natural childbirth soon discovered, like many TV moms, that her body was unreliable. But her doctors were even worse. With an insanely unrealistic set of medical mistakes, they managed to, um, kill her. That one was a double whammy for the pregnant women who made the mistake of watching it. It won an Emmy.
Hollywood takes footage of a normal birth and adds a gratuitously terrifying narrator: “The most DANGEROUS journey in life…the four-inch trip… DOWN the birth canal!” and “Here on a classroom floor…a lot can go wrong!”
I even heard about a mom who gave birth squatting, but the reality-show camera crew didn’t make it in time. So they made her re-enact the birth — lying flat on her back, working against gravity and sound physiological positioning, just because that’s what the director thought audiences should see.
But the laboring mother isn’t always the star of the show. Her partner often upstages her with the rough time he’s having. He (it’s always a he, except for once that I know of on “Friends”) gets his fingers bitten or crushed by the laboring mom. Or she threatens to do an instant vasectomy, or she jams his video camera into his eye. Sometimes, his struggle to get to the hospital on time is the focus of the episode — say, crawling through ventilation ducts with Bruce Willis.
When ordinary natural normal childbirth does make it onto the screen, it’s in the olden days – say, a Native or a pioneer woman. Or it’s a wacky woman giving birth in a remote lagoon, or swimming with dolphins. Or it’s an alien lady enjoying painless, sweat-free reproduction with her android pals looking on.
How can pregnant people de-program themselves and cultivate healthy, realistic expectations?
Be careful what you expose yourself to. Online births can be inspiring, or terrifying, or just plain stupid (a college student “birthing” a basketball might light up your search engine).
Fill yourself up with confidence-building imagery and information. Take a childbirth class. Watch “Birth Day,” a short film that captures midwife Naoli Vinaver Lopez’s robust grace and joy as she herself gives birth. Read informative, honest books like Pregnancy, Childbirth and the Newborn by Penny Simkin, or the excellent new Pregnancy & Birth Edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves, and the treasured fear-buster, Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth by the pioneering midwife Ina May Gaskin.
“Laboring Under An Illusion: Mass Media Childbirth vs. The Real Thing” is a film I made for just this purpose, juxtaposing 100 TV and movie births with real births, so you can judge for yourself what’s realistic and what you might want for your own birth. It’s pretty funny, and it’s got lots of clips from filmmakers whose mission is to inspire and encourage you. You might find that you want to see those films in their entirety. See the trailer at www.birth-media.com.
I’m alarmed to discover that my film is being well-received all over the world. It won a couple of awards here in the USA, which delighted me, but why do I get fan mail from places like Singapore and South Africa? Apparently, we are exporting our culture so far and wide that my critique of mass media is relevant all over the place.
I suppose Hollywood might wake up and stop scaring the daylights out of pregnant women. In case they care, I launched “Reel Childbirth,” a script consultancy to help them out. But I’m not holding my breath. It’s up to pregnant women and those who love them to balance distorted media with responsible information.
Go find people who are not afraid of labor. Find people who have had labors they feel good about, and find out what they know. Soak up their wisdom, and turn off the TV!
Now! Enter to win your own copy of the DVD “Laboring Under An Illusion: Mass Media Childbirth vs. The Real Thing”, regularly $19.95.